Thoughts on Thoughts

In which I think about why I’m thinking what I’m thinking, and how.

If I am deciding what to think next, how am I deciding what to decide?

One of the hazards of writing for a living is that one is occasionally asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” “The Internet, of course,” I typically respond but, if pressed, I will talk about my omnipresent notebooks and mind maps and certain software and in fact I do have a methodology of sorts for developing ideas. But the truth is, I find the process as mysterious as anyone and fairly often, as now, I just sit down and start typing to see what comes out.

The real mystery, at least to me, is not, ‘where do ideas come from?’ but, ‘where do thoughts come from?’ That is, how do I know or decide what I’m going to think next? Are all my thoughts reactive, generated solely in response to external events? Or do I, at some level, decide what I’m going to think next? Granted, it feels like I’m in control of my own thoughts, but if I am deciding what to think next, how am I deciding what to decide? And what about the times when I can be pretty sure I’m not in control of my thoughts? When I’m being needlessly paranoid, or when I can’t get a Ricky Nelson song out of my head, it sure feels like the thoughts are being inserted into my head somehow: I’d choose other thoughts if I could, but somehow I can’t.

I’ve meditated, with varying degrees of discipline, for more than half my life and by now I suppose I’ve spent thousands of hours simply sitting and breathing, or at least trying to simply sit and breathe; in those thousands of hours I’ve only succeeded in quieting thought for perhaps a few hundred minutes. The rest of the time I feel assailed by thought, as if thinking is a radio in my head that I can’t turn off, a mental tinnitus beyond cure.

So, are thoughts a sort of disease, an infection that debases a perfectly good brain? Well, I don’t think so but ah, there’s the rub. When we use thought to judge thought we are running up against a certain institutional bias, don’t you think? Thinking about thought is like an eye trying to look at itself – it can’t be done. We can look at a reflection of our eye, or a picture but the direct experience is, to us, forever denied.

The world is full of strangeness, as this blog attempts to document. UFO sightings, Marian apparitions, crop circles, etc., are all exceedingly odd and are fascinating to the extent they are odd. But undue preoccupation with such phenomena can distract us from the very headwaters of weirdness, a source of peculiarity literally closer to us than our own skin; the endless stream of thought passing through our own brains. Should you ever feel that your life is insufficiently peculiar, or that your hold on reality and sanity is, perhaps, overly firm, just try sitting still for a few minutes and try to figure out why you try to figure things out; you’ll find that raging within you is a source of deep mystery, an enigma worthy of a lifetime of contemplation.

At least, that what I think.

Did you like this essay? You’ll love my books!

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the green bastard 04.12.09 at 12:38 pm

Your brain is sort of like a computer in that there are loads of processes going on at once – heartbeat, breathing, a childhood memory, what to have for dinner later – even if you aren’t conscious of them. There is what I can only describe as a ‘function’ or ‘framework’ into which the most important thought at any one time is placed, and the framework is like the mind. Whatever is in it, we experience.
(Try some psychedelics like mushrooms or, if you want to see your mind dismantled and laid out for you to see in its entirety, good and bad, Ayahuasca.)

Angus 04.12.09 at 2:02 pm

Thanks green, good thoughts. I’ve tried psychedelics fairly often, but am still working on Ayahuasca.


Paul Sunstone 04.13.09 at 4:08 am

It seems to me thoughts always lag behind what’s happening or what’s going on. I’ve enjoyed them a whole lot more ever since I came to value them as commentaries on things — rather than value them as I would the things themselves.

Yvonne 09.11.09 at 3:24 pm

Just read Talks by Krishnamurti in India 1967, starting on this topic beginning on pg 52, then on pg 53 this:
“Now all life is energy, it is an endless movement. And that energy in its movement creates a pattern which is based on self-protection and security– that is, survival. Energy, movement, getting caught in a pattern of survival, and the repeating of that pattern–this is the beginning of thought. Thought is matter. Energy as movement, that movement caught in the pattern of survival and the repetition of survival in the sense of pleasure, of fear–that is the beginning of thought.”

Angus 09.11.09 at 4:22 pm

Thank you for sharing this quote, Yvonne – I’ve always bbeen attracted to Krishnamurti.


Dawson 05.17.13 at 7:18 am

I can’t help but not leave a comment as I believe I found this article at a perfect time in my life, and being a strong believer in the will of the universe, I will not ignore it’s importance by overlooking it. I always believed myself to be a naturally deep thinker but it only has been recent into the later years of my teenage journey that it has become apparent to me by my authority figures and peers. First I started driving off my friends; talking about the meaning of life, time, conciousness and existence of all of them in harmony every day wasn’t their favourite subject. Suddenly I found myself at a bore with every individual in my life, all they wanted to discuss was the latest movie or school scandal and it drove me crazy to sit idle and pretend like I was enjoying the “small” talk. This then spread through my friends to my teachers, from my teachers to my family and suddenly everyone around me seemed drab and mentally grey. I could not carry a “normal” conversation without going off on a tangent, or expressing my frustration that everyone was afraid to think. This slowly started to consume my life. It was only until I started connecting with a few, that the many could be tackled. I decided not to live in my own head and deal it with quite oppositely than you did. I pushed even harder. Essentially you could call it a plan to “spread” my thinking disease to all those around me. Gradually after a year or two of trial and error and a lot of inebriated conversations with close friends and family of mine I was able to allow them to see a glimpse, a small taste of what my mind felt like to be inside. They loved it. Suddenly it was exponential and the more friends I got on this thinking bandwagon the more hopped along. Suddenly it wasn’t looked at as obtrusive or too grand a subject to discuss, and I found myself surrounded with able minds ready to handle conversations I didn’t need to have with just myself any more. The moment of knowing I wasn’t alone in my grand confusing plot of life and I had other people to discuss and build upon connections I knew would last was the happiest moment of my life. I say this because I would never want to see a fellow-thinker give up their quest. Granted I understand each case is individual and has their own roadblocks and I am by no means telling you to throw away all your progress for something some ‘kid’ says on the internet but it would pain me to see a close one give up listening to that little voice inside their head, and for all we know we could have been close. Great article by the way, love reading your work. Hope this gives you some insight, wanted to let you know you are not alone.